My Last Recitative
In Jerusalem potestas mea
By Dominic Vautier
During my years as a brother with the Salesians from 1961 to 1964 at Don Bosco College in Newton, NJ, I was surrounded by studies, sports, prayer and music. In addition to choir and orchestra there were the Gregorian Chants during high mass and especially during retreats. Retreats were periods of silence, sermons and reflection that lasted a long time like a day or two or three.
The long retreat was during holy week. At DBC the brothers had traditions that were handed down over the years, sometimes embellished or enlarged or eventually forgotten, but they did have some interesting traditions. One that stands out very much in my mind were the recitatives during retreats. Here's how a recitative worked.
During retreat we followed Canonical Hours which were divided into seven periods of prayer; matins, prime, tierce, sext, nones, vespers, and finally compline. Prime, tierce, sext, and nones are the first, third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day, counting from six in the morning. The Canonical Hours consisted mostly of chanting different psalms led by an entoner. These chants had a standard Gregorian inflection starting usually with "g" on the doh clef with a half step down to end of a phrase, and a major third step down to end of a verse. It was a pretty simple chant. But certain passages required a single person to stand up and do a solo, that is, do a recitative. It was kind of an honor to do one of these.
The four recitatives that occurred during vespers on Good Friday were special because you were allowed to use different inflections that were not at all Gregorian Chant endings but a jazzed up series of notes and flurishes that we had created ourselves to make things a little more fun. These final Good Friday recitatives were mostly reserved for seniors. I recall having been selected during my first and second year college to do a recitative but never one of the Good Friday jazzy ones.
So as it happened on Good Friday 1964, I actually was selected to do the fourth recitative. It was an honor because I was a junior, and there were enough good senior voices around. Fr. Herzog may have given it to me because he knew that I was not coming back.
Anyway I practiced and practiced. In fact I memorized my recitative from Ecclesiasticus 24:15-25. It begins:
Et sic in Sion firmata sum et in civitate sanctificata similiter requievi et in Jerusalem potestas mea.
On that Good Friday, One of the other members who was to sing the third recitative before mine got confused and started singing my passage. Oops! I felt so sorry for the guy because he struggled through and everybody knew what had happened. When my turn came I sang the passage to perfection, but it was so anticlymactical. I always felt a little bit embarrassed.
Those days are all gone now. Latin is gone. Gregorian chant is mostly gone from the empty halls and chapels of the old seminary building in Newton and all those jazzy home-brewed DBC Gregorian chant endings are part of the distant past and our collective fading memories.
But I will never forget my last recitative.
Here are some examples of the normal Gregorian
inflection using the passage above"Et
sic in Sion firmata sum et in civitate sanctificata similiter requievi
et in Jerusalem potestas mea.
The phrase ending drops one half tone fron doh to ti.
A verse ending inflects like this.
Here is the special Salesian phrase ending
And the jazzed up verse ending. Wild stuff indeed!